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Walker’s last bold act as governor allows Alaskans to choose our future

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 21
  • Published October 20

Bill Walker was a historic governor, unique in his sincerity, who made some bold, important decisions. By abandoning his re-election campaign Friday, he gave Alaskans the opportunity to make one as well.

The election a little more than two weeks away now becomes a clear, decisive choice. Two versions of the future Alaska will be on the ballot. The result will tell us who Alaskans are as a people and what kind of place our state is going to be, likely for a generation.

That's a great final gift for this governor to have made to his state.

Walker hopes former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich will win. He stepped aside to clear the way for Begich, who he believes he has better chances and a similar philosophy to his own. Begich is a Democrat and Walker a moderate independent.

But former Republican state Sen. Mike Dunleavy also gets something from Walker's decision. If he wins, he gets a mandate.

That's still the most likely outcome. The three-way race confused voters and muted Begich and Walker's campaign messages. They both underperformed.

Meanwhile, as moderates and liberals struggled to pick between Walker and Begich, conservatives followed a simple path, consolidating Dunleavy's lead. As a front-runner, he has said as little as possible, avoiding losing support from people who would disagree if they knew his views.

Walker's voters won't all switch to Begich. Some are old-fashioned, moderate Republicans who simply cannot bring themselves to vote for a Democrat. Others are members of Begich's sizable pool of detractors accumulated over 30 years in public life.

Begich will get many of Walker's voters, Dunleavy will pick up some, a few will not vote at all, and others will still vote the line that remains on the ballot for Walker and his former running mate, Byron Mallott, who resigned as lieutenant governor on Tuesday.

Judging by the public polls, that split doesn't leave enough votes for Begich to win.

But although Dunleavy is the favorite, Begich still has a plausible avenue to victory, something neither he nor Walker had as of Friday morning. Big events can shake up a race. Voters who had been demoralized may become more enthusiastic. A strong year for Democrats nationally could boost Begich.

We will know soon enough. Now is the time to appraise Bill Walker and think about the choice he has set up for Alaskans.

Walker came into office without significant experience in politics. That was his disability and his gift.

It took him time to learn the job, and in some respects he never did. He cut his own staff, robbing himself of expertise to form policy and manage the bureaucracy. His relations with the Legislature were ineffective.

But Walker brought something much rarer than administrative and political skill to the office. He came with a solid moral core and authentic Alaska patriotism.

I use the word patriotism intentionally, although it is supposed to apply to love of country, not of state. In the Alaska Bill Walker came from, the pride was as strong as any nation's. He still burned with belief in Alaska like the leaders of the statehood era.

I'm not sure enough Alaskans still share those feelings to re-elect this kind of governor. It's been a long time since Alaskans shared joint sacrifice, worked for a common goal, or did anything together, really, other than collect Alaska Permanent Fund dividends.

Or perhaps we would hear such a call if we saw a better future. The boldness of the statehood generation may win more votes when times are good.

Walker made four courageous decisions — at least — that show how he put Alaska first.

When oil prices fell and the state faced fiscal calamity in 2015, he came up with a plan to fix it all at once by doing something that would require contributions from everyone. He used the metaphor of all pulling together on a rope, recalling a photograph from old-time, small-town Alaska.

Instead, the plan gathered adversaries from every direction.

After the Legislature failed to act on the crisis, he took the only actions available to him, vetoing spending and half the dividend. The money he saved stayed in the fund's earnings reserve; that's part of what we're living on now.

Walker knew at the time that the veto could cost him re-election. That's what made it courageous. Now he has paid the price.

Just this week, Walker showed his moral strength two more times.

He handled Mallott's indiscretion, whatever it was, as few other politicians would. The approach inflicted maximum political damage on himself.

By keeping Mallott's misdeed secret, but at the same time accepting Mallott's resignation just before the election, he took an ethical course — protecting the woman involved and making the situation clear to voters. But his campaign was crippled.

If Walker had stayed in the race, the mystery of Mallott's fall would have been the only subject of discussion.

And then, this week, he made that extraordinary apology to Alaska Native people. Perhaps he had already decided to drop out.

It's possible Walker could not have been a two-term governor at any time in our history. Politicians of all epochs have avoided decisions like these.

But with his final courageous choice, to simplify our selection of a new governor down to two dissimilar men, he places a worthy test before Alaskans.

Walker may have been too impolitic to survive in office. But his belief that the common good should come before the individual good remains the fundamental choice for us as a state.

In the comments he made when he bowed out Friday — highlighting the needs of the sick and poor, Alaska Natives, schools, and communities — he made clear the Alaska he would prefer for our future, and the kind of people he hopes we are.

And in about two weeks we will all know.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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